Every legislative session presents both challenges and opportunities for our work at the ACLU of South Dakota in defending and advancing civil liberties and rights in our state. Analyzing public policies, testifying on bills, and influencing policy-makers are important techniques to prevent the government from infringing on people’s rights.
So what happened in Pierre this year? Here’s a look back at some of the ACLU’s notable victories and defeats.
Victory! Fighting for transgender equality
The ACLU of South Dakota opposed House Bill 1057, legislation that would have prohibited doctors from providing medically necessary care to transgender youth and take away parents’ rights to make decisions about their children’s care.
HB 1057 continued the streak of bills that would codify discrimination against transgender youth that the South Dakota Legislature has attempted to pass over the last six years. Though supporters claimed House Bill 1057 was aimed at protecting vulnerable youth, it was clearly fueled by a fear and misunderstanding of transgender South Dakotans.
This year, we saw incredible community support in the fight against HB 1057, with volunteers logging dozens of hours making calls to community members to urge their opposition to the bill and sending more than a 1,000 emails asking their legislators and the governor to vote no. Opponents also organized a march in Sioux Falls and a rally in Pierre to show support for the LGBTQ+ and Two Spirit community and voice their opposition to the bill.
HB 1057 passed in the House but failed in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.
Victory! Preserving presumptive probation
After passing in the Senate, a House committee killed Senate Bill 6, Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg’s second attempt to modify presumptive probation.
The ACLU of South Dakota opposed SB 6, legislation that would have revised the conditions under which presumptive probation may be applied and required defendants to cooperate with law enforcement on drug and substance abuse cases.
Presumptive probation, which was signed into law in 2013 as part of the Public Safety Improvement Act, requires that, when sentencing people for Class 5 or Class 6 felonies — classifications that include many common low-level, non-violent drug offenses — courts are to sentence the person to probation rather than penitentiary time. Presumptive probation still allows judges to sentence low-level offenders to prison time if they believe it is warranted – a necessary element to ensuring judges make decisions based on their expertise and knowledge of the facts in each individual case.
Of course, not every vote went the way we would have liked. Just because the 2020 session is over, however, doesn’t mean our work ends. The ACLU is committed to its work on indigenous justice and free speech and criminal justice reform.
Defeat. Defending your right to free speech and protest
The ACLU of South Dakota opposed House Bill 1117, an unnecessary effort to legislate peaceful protest in South Dakota.
It’s irrefutable that HB 1117, like the 2019 “Riot Boosting Act” it replaces, was sparked by a desire to suppress protests around the Keystone XL pipeline. But the right to join with fellow citizens in protest or peaceful assembly is critical to a functioning democracy and at the core of the First Amendment.
Despite the strong message sent to legislators from water protectors and activists planning to peacefully protest the Keystone XL pipeline, HB 1117 passed and was signed into law by Gov. Kristi Noem. Legislators also passed a companion bill, House Bill 1199, which changed the term “riot boosting” to “incitement to riot.” Doing so, legislators said, clarified the intent of HB 1117.
The ACLU of South Dakota is concerned that the State of South Dakota doesn’t have a plan to ensure the rights of people who are peacefully protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline are protected and that these laws will be applied in a manner that violates the Constitution. The ACLU will be watching closely to ensure the government recognizes its obligation to safeguard the civil rights of water protectors and advocates and that these rights are protected, not erased.
Defeat. Restoring right to vote for people with a felony conviction
Denying the right to vote based on a citizen’s financial ability is the modern equivalent of a poll tax and violates the 14th Amendment, which prohibits the government from treating certain groups of people unfairly.
That’s why the ACLU supported House Bill 1245.
Under current South Dakota law, people with felony convictions cannot vote until they have served their prison sentence, completed their parole or probation and paid off any owed restitution or court fees. HB 1245 would have removed the restitution repayment stipulation for felony offenders.
Many defendants do not have the money to pay restitution and have few legal options for raising the necessary cash. In effect, restitution keeps people who otherwise have paid their debts to society enmeshed in the criminal justice system long after they’ve left prison, parole supervision or probation. The ACLU of South Dakota is committed to ensuring the voting rights of formerly incarcerated people are fully restored.
Defeat. Reclassifying ingestion as a misdemeanor
The ACLU of South Dakota supported Senate Bill 115, legislation that would have changed ingestion from a felony to a Class 1 misdemeanor for the first two offenses.
Reclassifying ingestion as a misdemeanor and investing the resulting savings of state funds in diversion and treatment programs designed to combat addiction would go a long way in helping to solve the underlying problems leading to drug abuse in our state.
It’s unfortunate that lawmakers aren’t willing to advance legislation that would prioritize people and not prisons and to help reform South Dakota’s criminal legal system.